When Smith Westerns split his teenage rock ‘n’ roll dream was wrecked, but their former frontman is moving on in style
For two months during the making of ‘New Misery’, Cullen Omori worked at a hospital wiping dried blood off stretchers. His messy part time job dovetailed with his songs, written by picking at the wounds resulting from the December 2014 split of his old band, cult Chicago trio Smith Westerns. The 25-year-old’s solo debut was conceived at a confusing time: Cullen, who’d been touring since quitting school in 2009, had to adjust to life without a band. Smith Westerns’ bassist, his brother Cameron, had gone to university and guitarist Max Kakacek quickly formed country group Whitney with former touring drummer Julien Ehrlich. Broke, bored and struggling to shake his hedonistic tour habits, Cullen looked inwards.
This might have led to a flimsy, fragile record – but it didn’t. The first thing that leaps out about ‘New Misery’ – recorded in New York by Sleigh Bells and Fucked Up collaborator Shane Stoneback – is the volume. You could get lost for hours in the buzz of keys and guitar on ‘And Yet The World Still Turns’ and ‘Synthetic Romance’. Even ‘Hey Girl’ – the closest thing to a Smith Westerns song here – is noisy. Denser than any of their three albums, ‘New Misery’ blends catchy solos, beefy drums and thick synth parts indebted to Spiritualized and OMD with Cullen’s voice – which remains evocative of some dreamy American high school utopia.
But ‘New Misery’ is way darker than that. On opener ‘No Big Deal’ – which stomps like T. Rex in a similar way to Smith Westerns’ 2009 debut – Cullen assesses his washed up lifestyle: “Creature of habit/ Torn leather jacket/ Chase the white rabbit/ I think something’s wrong”. Poppy lead single ‘Cinnamon’ has him anxiously sniffing coke in a club toilet: “I can hear you through the stall/ Don’t you go and take it all”. The snatches of introspection on the waltzing ‘Poison Dart’ (“I’m talking to myself and myself’s a jerk”) and ‘Sour Silk’ (“And I suppose I got it all wrong”) smack even louder of unhappiness.
As he sings “New misery lives on” on the closing title-track, it sounds very much like a black cloud still hangs over Cullen Omori’s head, but it should clear soon. He’s got more to smile about than he realises.